Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mammallapurum to Mangalore: part II

After my two seconds of biryani container hurling stardom, I returned to my former spot in the train.  My biryani hurling coach sat down next to me and began hurling questions at me faster than I could hurl a biryani container. It was the usual round of inquiries: Where you from?  Why you come to India? How do you like India?
When I told him I was from the U.S., he gave the response I've come to expect: A wide-eyed and exuberant "Oh, very good, Madame."
I turned the question game on him. "And you, if you could live anywhere--where would you like to live?"
Without hesitation he answered: "I'd like to be a rich man in Kerala."
After fifteen minutes of his inexhaustive questioning I tried to stifle a yawn as the the cooling breezes of India's darkening skies came rushing in through the metal slats of the open window and shadowy rice paddies and villages zoomed past.  But my sensitive new friend immediately said, "Ah, Madame must be tired."  He got up and lay down head to toe next to his mother on the lower berth of the aisle seats.

The Man in White sitting at the aisle end of my berth then removed his carpet bag that lay between us on the faded blue bench,set it down on the floor, and indicated through hand gestures that I could extend my legs--perhaps even put them on his lap?  Not in the habit of of putting my feet on the laps of strange men, I lay on my side in a fetal position and half-dozed for an hour until the Men in White rose, collected their carpet bags, and exited the train.

The little India man across from me now lifted the padded, faded-blue back rest, attached a chain to either end from the upper berth, creating the middle tier of our three-tier, non AC car.

"It's best to do this now, " he said, "because people will come later on and will have to disturb you to make their bed.  This way you won't be disturbed."

"Yes, that's a good idea, " I said, and he immediately lifted my back rest, chained it up, and with a gracious smile wished me a "Good night, Madame."

However, "undisturbed sleep" was not about to grace my night.  The "Big" family made sure of that.

The "Big" family were big in numbers and size; hefty by India standards.  They first stood in the aisle shouting and when I lifted my groggy head to see what all the fuss was about, they stood there staring at me accusingly,  In my half-consciousness all I could think to do in response was to smile and wave.  They returned neither the smile or the wave,  When the sleeping Indian man opposite me finally woke up and looked at them, the largest of them--a man of an award-winning girth charged at him and began speaking rapidly.

Smiling graciously, the little Indian man took his bags, tossed them up to the middle berth on his side, climbed up, covered himself with his yellow daisy- patterned sheet, turned his back to us, and went to sleep.

A mother and small baby lay down in his vacated place and she began nursing the crying baby whose whimpers instantly changed to slurps and gurgles.  Then a debate began for who should be the lucky person installed in the berth above me.

"Please.  Please," I silently prayed, "don't let it be the Big Mr. Big."  Visions of Mr. Big, cradle and all collapsing. slamming down on me, and rendering me a cartoon pancake slipped through my sleep-deprived mind. 

Meanwhile, standing directly in front of me, between me and the nursing mother, a young girl of about eight, dressed in an orange and black sequined outfit  proceeded to jump up and down, put her foot up on my berth and try to leap onto the middle one above me, like some kind  of bizarre bobbing halloween hallucination.  Squealing and whining in what I assumed where pleas to be allowed access to the berth, she and one beefy woman were finally assisted in attaining the lofty heights of the middle tier, non AC berth above me.   Following this another big woman came and stood between the two berths alternately talking to the nursing mother opposite me and the beefy woman and little girl above me.

Big Mr. Big came and went, came and went strutting back and forth, brows knitted, looking very serious and self-important in his role of looking after all the Big Family.  Clearly, he was the man in charge of everything.

Then a big man who looked like Big Mr. Big's younger and slightly less big brother was allotted the highest tier on my side.  With a heave and a grunt, he grabbed onto the top rung of the ladder on the aisle, placed one massive bare foot on the first rung, his other foot on the middle berth of the mother and university son's berth, and hurled his bulk onto the top berth as I held my breath and hoped it would hold.

Thank goodness, one time good old Indian construction stood the test of use.

Finally, everyone was ensconced in a berth somewhere and silence and peace drifted over the non AC, 3-tier, sleeping car.

For a short time.

Sometime before dawn, The Big Family rose, collected one another and their belongings and amid more shouting eventually departed.

I fell into a half-sleep --the lurches and jolts of the train interrupting any real sleep; the smells of urine-saturated train tracks and occasionally as the train strained its way over the mountainous Western Ghats,  a smell my mind classified in its drowsiness as engine "sweat"-- an acrid, stinging odor--unsettled me and drove away sleep.

At sunrise, the mother and university son rose and exited the train and the little India man opposite me, rose, restored his middle berth to the back rest of the lower berth, ran his slight hands through his hair and beard, gathered his belongings, and left.

Alone, I got up, unchained the middle berth and lowered it; called to the first milk tea hawker, sipped my sweet milky tea and watched the back waters float by like bollywood backdrops past my window.

The train pulled into Mangalore at 9:30 am.  A sixteen and a half hour journey.  I hauled a rickshaw, went to the bus station, and boarded a local bus to Kumta.  Five hours later, I got up, jumped into a bus that was about to depart for Gokarna and one hour later I was at last back to Gokarna.

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